In 2008, Malcom Gladwell published his book, Outliers. In it, he talks about the Ten Thousand Hour Rule: to become an expert in any field, you need to put in ten thousand hours of practice. To equestrians, there’s something familiar about this concept – we’ve all heard that mastering this sport requires time in the saddle. But there’s something key that Gladwell left out of his book: the original research showed us that the way we practice makes a difference and what we need is something called “deliberative practice”. Deliberative practice is a targeted, focused practice that has clear outcomes, and it’s the key to seeing real improvement in your riding (and anything else that you want to get good at). There are four criteria that need to be in place for something to count as deliberative practice.
First, it can’t be too easy. If we imagine a mathematician wanting to improve their skills, it’s easy to see that they wont get any better if all they do is practice sums like 2 + 2. They have to tackle something that’s a little more challenging. You can imagine that the same is true in your riding: while going back to basics never hurts, you’re not going to improve if you only do things you already know how to do.
Which brings us to the second criteria: it can’t be so difficult that you won’t be able to get it right. Being completely unable to achieve something won’t actually teach you anything. Instead, you’ll get frustrated and disheartened and, in the case of riding, you’re very likely to hurt yourself and the horse.
So deliberative practice means that you’re working on something that you’re capable of doing but that you have to work at to get right. A nice rule of thumb is that you can get it right, but not every time.
The next criteria is that deliberative practice needs to be specific. Going into the arena without a plan won’t help you to improve, no matter what you’re working on. Being specific doesn’t have to mean boring or overly repetitive; if you’re focusing on transitions you will need to do a lot of transitions to see improvement. But you can do those while running through a dressage test, or on an outride. As long as you go into your session knowing that you’re focusing on improving something specific, how you do it doesn’t really matter.
Finally, whatever you’re practicing needs to be measurable. You need to be able to judge whether you’ve “gotten it right” so that you can see whether you’ve made any real improvement.
Putting these criteria together gives you an infinite set of possible things to practice and using these as a checklist when you’re thinking about your riding will help you improve faster than if you go in without a plan.
I’m still new to riding and have a few bad habits from before I joined ESC. One of those is tipping forward in the saddle, especially during transitions. On a recent outride, my lazy little pony would fall behind the group while walking so, instead of trotting up them in one go, I’d catch up to the group and add in as many walk-trot transitions as I could. In each of these transitions, I paid attention to not tipping forward, setting myself do-able, specific, and measurable thing to practice, even though I wasn’t in an arena.
It may take some creativity to think through what deliberative practice would look like for the aspects of your riding that you’d like to improve but it’s well worth the effort. One outride with some deliberative practice thrown in and I saw a significant improvement in my seat during the next lesson, where the focus shifted to keeping that balance during turns.
So, try to be more intentional about your riding. Whether you’re taking lessons or riding on your own, go into each ride having thought through what you’ll be focusing on and how you’ll measure success. While the science says this is the best way for you to improve, nothing beats a good story, so we’d love to hear how you incorporate deliberative practice into your riding!
Author: Rochelle Jacobs